Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Live from Colombiere.

I'm writing to you today from Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan, where I've spent the last few days participating in the annual 'kiddie conference' of Jesuits in formation. In the past, this conference has included young Jesuits from the Chicago and Detroit Provinces. In view of the anticipated merger of the three Jesuit provinces of the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest, this year's conference also includes Jesuits in formation for the Wisconsin Province. Since I won't have another chance to do so before the end of the conference, I'd like to extend my best wishes for the new year to all readers. See you in January! AMDG.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in Mosul.

Iraqi Christians in the northern city of Mosul say this year has been the worst in living memory. After a wave of killings and attacks in October, more than 2,000 families fled to nearby villages.

Mosul remains one of the most dangerous places in Iraq and a stubborn holdout of the insurgency, but security has improved enough that at least half of those families have returned. On Thursday, they braved the violence and biting cold and rain to attend Christmas Masses and pray for their safety.

. . .

To the extent that security has improved, it is thanks largely to the nearly 3,000 national police officers sent here from Baghdad to bolster the local force in October.

But many of the Christians who have returned said they did so because they were inspired by the determination and faith of one priest and a handful of nuns to remain in the city against the odds.

At St. Paul’s [Chaldean Catholic Church], Mikhail Ibrahim said the only reason he returned to Mosul after fleeing for a few weeks with his family was because of his faith in the Rev. Basman George Fatouhi, the Chaldean Church’s de facto leader in Mosul.

“He was the only one who stayed and took care of the community,” Mr. Ibrahim said. “He told us to come back and we did.”

Father Fatouhi, a charismatic 27-year-old priest, was thrust into the effective leadership of the Chaldean Church in Mosul after the kidnapping and death this year of its leader, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho. Archbishop Rahho’s closest aide, another senior figure in the church, was killed in 2007.

Father Fatouhi had negotiated with the archbishop’s kidnappers, who abducted the archbishop after a church service and killed three of his companions.

Their demands went from $300,000 to $20,000, but after the lesser sum was paid the negotiators were told that the archbishop had died in captivity because he did not have his diabetes medication.

Father Fatouhi and another church member dug his body out of a shallow grave and took it to the morgue.
To read the rest, click here. More importantly, continue to pray for the Christians of Iraq. AMDG.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Et lux in tenebris lucet.

If you live in the northern hemisphere and celebrate the Nativity of Christ on the date reckoned by the Gregorian (or Revised Julian) calendar, then you're used to the idea that Christmas arrives a few days after the winter solstice. Christmas comes shortly after the darkest day of the year, at a time when the daylight hours are slowly but perceptibly growing longer. In this way, nature bears witness to the very subtle way in which the divine light entered into our world through the birth of Christ. As the Prologue of John's Gospel reminds us, this light came in the subtlest way possible - it was a light that shone in the darkness, a light like that of a single candle in a large room or a small lamp on a moonless night. And yet, as John wrote, the light that came to us at the birth of Christ was the "true light that enlightens everyone" (Jn 1:9). The inability of the darkness to overcome this small light bears witness to resilience of faith in the face of what can sometimes seem to be the overwhelming forces of indifference and rejection.

After praying on the themes of light and darkness at Christmas, I took a look at some of the many photographs I took during my retreat in Jerusalem this past June. The set of photos seen above were all taken at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a wonderfully dark place lit by many small candles. Each of these candles bears witness to the faith and fervent prayers of pilgrims who journey from around the world to visit the central shrine of Christendom.

Bookending the various images of candles offered above, I've included a couple of liturgical scenes in which candles are prominent. The first photo in this series shows an early morning celebration of the Coptic Divine Liturgy on a small altar at the back of the Tomb of Christ. Here, the light provided by the candles is what allows the liturgy to go on. In the last photo in the set, taken at the Greek Orthodox service of Orthros, the candles are purely devotional yet the faithful nonetheless cluster around them as if to acknowledge the power of the light of faith. In all of these photos, the gentle light of candles in the dark reminds us of the inextinguishable light of Christ that comes into our hearts at Christmas. AMDG.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A new and wondrous mystery.

After returning from Midnight Mass and before heading to bed, I'd like to continue what has become the tradition of this blog by passing along my prayerful best wishes for Christmas and by sharing a portion of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! AMDG.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The two comings of Christ.

On the eve of Christmas, I thought I'd once again share something from the book I've been reading to prepare for the Nativity, Father Thomas Hopko's The Winter Pascha. Emphasizing the correspondence between the "winter Pascha" that we celebrate tomorrow and the "springtime Pascha" that comes in our celebration of Christ's death and resurrection, Father Hopko shows how both point to the great mystery at the heart of the Christian faith:

Jesus was born in order to die. Indeed, of all humans who ever lived on earth, God's Son is the only one who entered the world for this purpose. He came to die so that we might live in and through Him. The eternal life which He brings to the world is already present and active in those who receive Him, but it will be manifested fully and completely in a way which no one can question, doubt, or resist only at the end of the ages. Christians are those who remember and celebrate the fact that God has visited His people in the person of His son in order to be crucified and raised. And so they are also those who await His coming, believing that all of God's promises made in and through Jesus will be actualized in the age to come. . . .

Christians live between the two comings of Christ. They remember His first coming to be sacrificed. They anticipate His second coming to reign. This is vividly portrayed in traditional Orthodox church buildings where the "royal gates" of the icon screen in front of the altar table are flanked by the icons of the Theotokos and Child on the one side, and the Lord Jesus in glory on the other. To the uninitiated it may seem as though these are simply pictures of Mary and Jesus put on the same level. This is not so. The icons which frame the Orthodox altar are images of the two comings of Christ. Mary is not alone in her icon; she is holding the Christ Child, who is not shown as a baby, but as the Son of God incarnate "in the form of a slave . . . in the likeness of men" (Phil 2:7). This is the icon of Christ's first coming. And the icon on the right of the doors is not a picture of Jesus as He was on the earth. It is His image in glory as King and Lord, the icon of His second coming.

The two comings of Christ are held together in Christian thought, action, and prayer at all times. They cannot be separated. When they are, it is the end of Christian faith, life and worship. The first coming without the second is a meaningless tragedy. The second coming without the first is an absurd impossibility. Jesus is born to bring God's kingdom. He dies to prove His kingship. He rises to establish His reign. He comes again in glory to share it with His people. In the kingdom of God there are no subjects. All rule with the risen Messiah. He came, and is coming, for this purpose alone.
As I pass Father Hopko's words along to you, I'm sitting at my old desk in my old room at my parents' home in Massachusetts. I'm grateful for the opportunity to spend Christmas here with my family, and I pray that the peace and blessings of this holy night will be with all who read these lines. Merry Christmas! AMDG.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in Iraq.

Like many other Christians throughout the world, the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq traditionally celebrate the Nativity of the Lord with a midnight liturgy on Christmas. In recent years, ongoing turmoil in Iraq and threats to Christians there have forced Chaldean communities to celebrate the 'midnight' Eucharist during daylight hours on Christmas Eve. As Christmas draws near, AsiaNews considers the mood of Chaldean Catholics in the northern city of Kirkuk, a reputed 'safe haven' where Iraqi Christians nonetheless find themselves under siege:
For the Christian community in Kirkuk, the most eagerly awaited Christmas gift is "participation at midnight Mass." It is a wish that, again this year, cannot be fulfilled: nighttime celebrations are banned for reasons connected to security. But there remains the hope that "one day the country may recover peace" and "freedom": this is the essential reason prompting families to remain - amid difficulties and sufferings - and to testify with their lives to the deepest meaning of the Christmas celebration.

During these days of Advent, AsiaNews has met three families from Kirkuk, (whose names we are not publishing for the evident reason of protecting their safety), thanks to whom one may seek to understand the atmosphere surrounding preparation for Christmas, and the meaning of the feast in an area marked by conflict and violence. "At Christmas, families get together to take part in the Mass," recounts one woman. "Although it is no longer possible to celebrate the ceremony at midnight, it is still wonderful to see so many people gathering to contemplate the face of God in the Child in the crib." The solemn midnight Mass - celebrated, in reality, at 5:30 in the afternoon of the 24th, and broadcast live on a satellite television channel - is the most important moment for the families of Kirkuk, after which "there is the traditional exchange of greetings: serenity for families, and peace for all of Iraq."
For the Christians of Kirkuk, the celebration of Christmas offers a sign of hope in a time of persecution. As the AsiaNews article concludes:
Within the Christian community, "one does not live in an atmosphere of fear. The celebration, on the contrary, is transformed into a moment of renewed hope: we are ready to celebrate Christmas," they say, "with joy. Prayer becomes a means to alleviate suffering, and to make us feel close to Christians all over the world who recall the birth of Jesus. Our voice cries aloud, 'We are still here' to witness to Jesus, certain of the fact that we are not alone."

Louis Sako, archbishop of the diocese of Kirkuk, issues through AsiaNews a message of good wishes to the faithful: "For me, Christmas," the prelate says, "means being reborn each day in everyday difficulty. The celebration invites us to love, to welcome, to share without barriers. With this profound strength that arises from our faith, we can truly realize peace."
As our celebration of the Nativity draws near, my prayers are with Christians in Iraq and elsewhere who will commemorate Christ's birth amid present persecution and suffering. As I take part in the celebration of Midnight Mass, I hope to remain mindful of the faithful for whom this great tradition must remain a dream deferred. AMDG.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Koopman's Messiah.

With exams and term papers happily behind me, on Friday night I took a group of Ciszekians to hear the New York Philharmonic play Handel's Messiah under the direction of Dutch conductor Ton Koopman. A Baroque music specialist, Koopman sought to give the audience in Avery Fisher Hall a sense of how Handel's oratorio might have sounded to eighteenth-century listeners, a feat accomplished by paring the orchestra down to around twenty-five players, using a relatively small chorus, and asking the assembled forces to play and to sing a bit differently than they (and contemporary listeners) are accustomed to. For the most part, Koopman and company delivered a relaxed and reflective Messiah in contrast with the grave and thunderous interpretations that have shaped many listeners' expectations of the work. Koopman's Messiah isn't likely to dislodge my favorite recorded version - this one by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of New College, Oxford under the direction of Edward Higginbottom - but I still found the results very pleasing to hear.

The New York Philharmonic presents Handel's Messiah every December to sell-out crowds that include many people who don't often attend classical concerts. Several of the Jesuits who joined me on Friday fall into this category, and all told me that they enjoyed the concert very much. My impression is that some other first-timers were less than enthralled, as some audience members walked out less than twenty minutes into a concert that lasted over two hours. I suspect that many who know Messiah solely in the context of the "Hallelujah" chorus would be quite bored with the remainder of the oratorio, particularly if the heavily theological libretto (made up entirely of Bible verses) doesn't appeal to them. Apropos of a recent post on a music blog that I read regularly, I'm pleased to note that most of Friday's audience observed the longstanding Messiah tradition of standing for the "Hallelujah" chorus. I suspect that most stood not as a conscious expression of religious commitment but because they felt that they were supposed to - or because others nearby were doing so and they didn't want to be left out.

Still on the topic of the "Hallelujah" chorus, I found myself particularly moved on Friday night by a verse that I suspect many really don't pay much attention to amid the euphoric repetitions of "Hallelujah" and "The Lord God omnipotent reigneth" and such. At the conclusion of the first part of the chorus, Handel offers a quotation from Revelation 11:15: The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Sung only once, this line offers a brief but very beautiful summation of the Church's eschatological hope. As I noted in a post at the start of Advent, few of us consciously live out our lives with this kind of expectation. On the same token, some who do live with this expectation err by thinking that God's reign may be brought about through human effort. As our celebration of the Nativity draws near, we would do well to pray over these words and consider how we would respond if we saw their fulfillment: The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. AMDG.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"He threw it away for God."

Though I'm not the first to do so, I'd like to call attention to two very moving paragraphs at the end of the obituary of Avery Cardinal Dulles published today by the Times of London:
After [Dulles'] consecration as a cardinal in Rome on February 21, 2001, the Gregorian University hosted a meal in his honor. Over the rattle of after-dinner coffee cups, various high-ranking ecclesial figures rose to praise Dulles’s life and work. The most revealing moment, however, may have come when, unexpectedly, one of his Dulles cousins stepped to the podium.

An aristocrat of that strange, old American variety — tall and puritanically thin, well but primly dressed, a daughter of stern Protestant New England — she explained that she had overheard as a child the outraged family discussions of the young Avery’s conversion. Uncle Allen, Aunt Eleanor, John Foster, all the senior family members gathered around to complain that the best and brightest of the family’s next generation seemed determined to throw his promising life away. “And, of course, they were right,” she said. “He did throw that life away. He threw it away for God.”
He threw it away for God. I can think of no better coda for a life well-lived. AMDG.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., 1918-2008.

After a long and remarkable life that included over fifty years in the Roman Catholic priesthood, a distinguished career as an academic theologian and the honor of being named to the College of Cardinals, Avery Robert Dulles died this morning at the age of 90. I cannot claim to have known Cardinal Dulles well, but I'm grateful to have been a student in the final class that he offered here at Fordham and to have had various social interactions with him in Jesuit contexts. Though he was a famous man, Cardinal Dulles always displayed an impressive degree of humility. The first time I met him was at dinner at Spellman Hall on Fordham's campus; as we waited in line to get our food, the Cardinal introduced himself to me simply as "Avery," though I never dared to call him anything other than "Cardinal Dulles." During this and other meals that I shared with him, I found Cardinal Dulles to be a gentle and unassuming dining companion who listened attentively and respectfully to what others had to say even if he could speak more knowledgably about a given subject than anyone else at the table.

In the last few months of his life, Cardinal Dulles suffered from a post-polio syndrome that slowly robbed him of his ability to move and to communicate. Though he remained as sharp as ever, Cardinal Dulles found it increasingly difficult to share his thoughts with others. When he was no longer able to speak, he had to communicate through the medium of written notes or typed comments. When he could no longer hold a pencil or type, he had to rely on more complex methods of dictation that required the patient help of others. The spiritual strength with which Cardinal Dulles met these challenges is suggested by the words that he chose to conclude his final lecture as Fordham's McGinley Professor of Religion and Society. I believe that these words offer a fitting end to this post:

I often feel that there is no one on earth with whom I would want to exchange places. It has been a special privilege to serve in the Society of Jesus, a religious community specially dedicated to the Savior of the world.

The good life does not have to be an easy one, as our Blessed Lord and the saints have taught us. Pope John Paul II in his later years used to say, “The Pope must suffer.” Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be expected as elements of a full human existence.

Well into my 90th year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Requiescat in Pace. AMDG.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bon centenaire!

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important composers of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen, who died near Paris in 1992. (As an aside, tomorrow is the 100th birthday of another important 20th-century composer, Elliott Carter, who is very much alive and is still producing new music.) A devout Catholic, Messiaen produced startlingly original compositions that reflected his own intense and very mystical spirituality as well as his keen interest in topics as diverse as ornithology, Thomistic philosophy, and the music and cultures of East Asia. Though he spoke very openly about his religious faith and produced numerous compositions on explicitly Christian themes, Messiaen also won the respect and admiration of many who did not share his beliefs. The fact that Messiaen spent decades serving simultaneously as titular organist of La Trinité in Paris and as a professor at the Conservatoire de Paris says much about his ability to thrive in very different musical cultures.

The centenary of Messiaen's birth has occasioned numerous tributes and many performances of his music, winning him new fans and hopefully also leading some to reflect more deeply on the relationship between modern classical music and religious faith. Though I've been aware of Messiaen for a few years, the buzz surrounding the centenary got me more interested in his work and ultimately converted me into a fan. Listening for the first time to some of Messiaen's more explicitly religious compositions, like his L'Ascension for organ or the orchestral work Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, as well as ostensibly secular pieces like the Turangalîla-Symphonie, I felt a sense of genuine awe unlike anything else I've experienced while listening to music. I've certainly been inspired by music before - I could go on at great length about how deeply I've been moved by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, or how much spiritual sustenance I've drawn from the Russian tradition of sacred choral music and from the religious works of J. S. Bach. I'm simply saying that I've found something unique in Messiaen's music that I can't fully express in words. In this sense, Messiaen reminds me powerfully that one of the functions of music is precisely to express what words alone cannot.

If you'd like to know more about Olivier Messiaen and about the spiritual vision the informs his music, I suggest that you take a look at an appreciation of Messiaen by Jesuit Father John Coleman published two weeks ago in America. On the 100th anniversary of Messiaen's birth, I'll be praying in a spirit of gratitude for the blessed repose of a great composer who left us an enduring gift in his music. AMDG.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Notes on the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra.

Today the Church honors the memory of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, a fourth-century bishop who provides the example for the figure known in present-day North America as Santa Claus. Last year on this date, I wrote a bit about the historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra and the different ways his feast is celebrated in various countries. I don't have much to add this year, but I would like to share some reflections on St. Nicholas of Myra from Father Thomas Hopko's The Winter Pascha, a book that has been an important part of my spiritual reading in these first few days of Advent. After reflecting on St. Nicholas' role as the inspiration for the contemporary figure of Santa Claus, Father Hopko has this to say:
The extraordinary thing about the image of Saint Nicholas in the Church is that he is not known for anything extraordinary. He was not a theologian and never wrote a word, yet he is famous in the memory of believers as a zealot for orthodoxy, allegedly accosting the heretic Arius at the first ecumenical council in Nicaea for denying the divinity of God's Son. He was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting and vigils, yet he is praised for his possession of the 'fruits of the Holy Spirit . . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control' (Gal 5:22-23). He was not a mystic in our present meaning of the term but he lived daily with the Lord and was godly in all of his words and deeds. He was not a prophet in the technical sense, yet he proclaimed the Word of God, exposed the sins of the wicked, defended the rights of the oppressed and afflicted, and battled against every form of injustice with supernatural compassion and mercy. In a word, he was a good pastor, father, and bishop to his flock, known especially for his love and care for the poor. Most simply put, he was a divinely good person.

. . .

The Messiah has come so that human beings can live lives which are, strictly speaking, humanly impossible. He has come so that people can really be good. One of the greatest and most beloved examples among believers that this is true is the holy bishop of Myra about whom almost nothing else is known, or needs to be known, except that he was good. For this reason alone he remains, even in his secularized form, the very spirit of Christmas.
The photo that accompanies this post depicts an icon of St. Nicholas of Myra that I have on the wall of my room at Ciszek Hall. Over time I've developed a devotion to St. Nicholas of Myra, a devotion that partly grew out of my fascination with the various traditions that have grown up around him everywhere from Anatolia to Amsterdam. It was with this devotion in mind that I purchased this icon, which I found in a small shop overseen by Greek Orthodox monks at the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem. Looking at this icon reminds me to seek the prayerful intercession of St. Nicholas, which I do today in the words of the Byzantine troparion appointed for this feast: You appeared to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence. Because of your lowliness, heaven was opened to you. Because of your poverty, riches were granted to you. O holy Bishop Nicholas, pray to Christ our God to save our souls. AMDG.

Further reflections on detachment.

As I've promised to do not once but twice, I'd like to share some thoughts on what Jesuits and others schooled in Ignatian spirituality refer to as detachment. A great deal could be said about this topic, so I'm going to to try to keep things brief by focusing on my personal experience of detachment. Though this experience is conditioned by the fact that I'm a Jesuit, I hope that what I write here has some value for others as well.

St. Ignatius gets at the meaning of detachment at the very start of the Spiritual Exercises. In the Principle and Foundation offered at the beginning of the First Week, the person making the Exercises is reminded that material things "are created for human beings, to help them in pursuit of the end for which they [i.e. human beings] are created," namely "to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of doing this to save their souls." Thus, Ignatius counsels us "to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free ourselves from them to the extent that they hinder us from it." This means that we should seek to cultivate a healthy indifference toward created things, recognizing that their value rests in their ability to bring us closer to God. This indifference is manifested in an attitude of detachment, which is best understood not as a lack of care but as a well-ordered love and careful stewardship of God's gifts to us. As Ignatius writes in the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits accompanying the Exercises, a soul that is experiencing true spiritual consolation "can love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but only in the Creator of them all."

Cultivating a genuine sense of detachment in our daily lives can be a positive challenge. In the course of an ordinary day, I seldom treat the objects that I use as gifts from God that are meant to help me live in closer relationship with my Creator. When I go down to the kitchen in the morning for the first of several daily cups of coffee, I rarely take the time to reflect on how this habitual activity points to God. If I often fail to feel a conscious sense of gratitude as I go about my morning routine, I certainly feel some ingratitude when this routine is unexpectedly varied - when, for example, there are no clean coffee cups available or the coffee pot is empty. In a similar vein, I typically don't express gratitude to God when the New York City Subway gets me where I need to go on time, but I do get upset when unexpected delays or disruptions in service cause me to be late. In short, I (like many others) tend to take a lot of things for granted.

Not taking things for granted is an important part of spiritual detachment. As a Jesuit, I've often been reminded that many of the things I have been given are to be used for the good of the apostolate and not as ends in themselves. Even so, internalizing a proper attitude of detachment - and freeing oneself of attachments to particular things - can be difficult. One concrete if mundane struggle I felt as a candidate for the Society had to do with books. I've always enjoyed perusing used bookstores, and it's hard for me to leave such a shop without a new acquisition in hand. If I became a Jesuit, I wondered, would I be able to buy books and keep them for my own use? I felt little comfort when I learned that I could take up to ten books with me to the novitiate - at the time, this quota struck me as unduly restrictive and perhaps even a bit anti-intellectual. Ultimately, my fears were assuaged by a conversation with my Jesuit spiritual director, a seasoned academic and a bit of a bibliophile himself. Pointing to the many tomes lining the walls of his office, my director described his books as "tools" that enabled him to do the work the Society asked of him. I quickly came to realize that the question I should ask myself wasn't whether I could keep my books but how having books would impact my life as a Jesuit. As I would learn, the proper use of the material things that a Jesuit has at his disposal is a matter for careful discernment.

Making the thirty-day Spiritual Exercises as a first-year novice, I grew in detachment in ways that I could not have anticipated at the start of the retreat. My consumption of carbonated beverages bears witness to this growth in a seemingly mundane but undeniably significant sense. Before the Long Retreat, I usually drank several cans of Coke a day - not simply because I liked the taste, but because soda was readily available at the novitiate. Arriving at the Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, I found that soda wasn't available in the dining room but could be purchased from an ancient vending machine of questionable reliability. Thus, I decided to go without soda for the duration of the Long Retreat. A month later, I was surprised to discover both that I didn't miss my daily intake of Coca-Cola and that I actually felt a lot better without it. I reached this realization with a great sense of gratitude, finding that I had reached a sense of detachment regarding my consumption of soda almost by accident.

The realm of communications presented me with more substantial struggles during the Long Retreat. Having been told by my director that I shouldn't read the daily newspaper during the retreat, I had to make a titanic effort not to let my eyes wander to the fresh copy of the Boston Globe that found its way to the reading table in the house library each morning. Accustomed not only to reading the paper daily but to checking e-mail and using the Internet throughout the day, I had a difficult time settling into the enforced 'radio silence' of the retreat. Since retreatants were allowed to receive limited mail and messages at different points of the retreat, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of any kind of communication from the outside world and treasured the notes and letters that I received. In this sense, I don't think that I fully succeeded in attaining a true sense of detachment regarding communications during the Long Retreat. Even so, dealing with this challenge helped to enlarge my understanding of what Ignatian detachment is.

A final concrete story of my experience with detachment comes from my time in First Studies here at Fordham. Having had a cell phone for several years before I entered the novitiate, not having one was both liberating and frustrating for me. I definitely appreciated the freedom of not having another technological device to worry about, but I also found myself in various situations - particularly while traveling or trying to meet up with people - in which not having a cell phone proved to be a real inconvenience. Though having a cell phone was out of the question in the novitiate, it became possible (albeit with permission from superiors) after I took vows and moved on to studies. During my first year at Fordham, I remained appreciative of the freedom that came with not having a cell phone and regarded the occasional inconveniences that came with this as a positive experience of poverty. Eventually, though, I decided after much thought and prayer that the apostolic and practical benefits of having a cell phone in particular situations outweighed the arguments that I'd made against getting one. After explaining all of this to my superiors, I received permission to purchase a cell phone and to add the monthly service fees to my regular budget. In the process, I also learned a salutary lesson in detachment - I had learned that I could live without a cell phone, and I had also learned that a cell phone isn't a good in itself but a tool to be used responsibly in the larger context of my vocation and ministry as a Jesuit.

Having offered lengthy and perhaps a bit rambling reflections on my own experience, I'd like to reemphasize a point I made at the beginning of this post: detachment should be understood as a well-ordered love and careful stewardship of God's gifts. This means being grateful for what we have, but it also means asking challenging questions about how our use of material things brings us closer to (or drives us further away from) the One who created us in and for love. We should not strive for a kind of indifference that allows us to capriciously cast our possessions away in the false belief that they keep us from being better disciples. On the contrary, we should ask what sort of difference doing with or without something makes for our relationship with God. If we can answer these questions in a prayerful confidence that brings us a sense of peace, I would submit that we have learned something about the true meaning of detachment. AMDG.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Eternal memory.

This morning I learned that the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexy II, has died at the age of 79. Chosen to lead the Russian Orthodox Church just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Patriarch Alexy shepherded his flock through a tremendously challenging period. Hoping for a spiritual revival after decades of religious persecution, Alexy also sought a privileged role for the Orthodox Church in Russian public life. In the days and years ahead, the legacy of the newly-departed Patriarch will surely be the subject of much debate. Though I'm no expert, I think that Alexy II deserves great praise for helping to restore communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia after an eighty-year split. While Catholic-Orthodox relations have often been strained in the last few years, Pope Benedict XVI today acknowledged Patriarch Alexy's commitment to greater understanding among the churches. As I pray for the blessed repose of Patriarch Alexy, I pray also for all who mourn him and particularly for the faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church. Grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of your newly-departed servant Patriarch Alexy, and may his memory be eternal! AMDG.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Is patience still waiting?

Advent is a time of waiting. Much as the penitential season of Lent serves to prepare the hearts of Christians for the joy of Easter, Advent helps us to prepare for the momentous event that we celebrate on Christmas. The liturgical readings and rituals of the Advent Season are meant to foster an attitude of eager anticipation, giving us a felt sense of the joy with which we should greet the Son of God who shared in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. As the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent reminds us, we must be watchful and alert for we "do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning."

For many Christians, I suspect, the anticipation and watchfulness of Advent are understood but not really felt. Pressed to affirm our belief in the second coming, many of us may be forced to admit (to God, if not to our fellow Christians) that we don't really expect Christ to return any time soon. If we actually had such an expectation, many of us would probably opt to live out our Christian commitment in radically different ways. Indeed, it seems safe to say that the history of Christianity would be far different if the Church had steadfastly maintained its early belief in Christ's imminent and glorious return. In a very real sense, the Church has found its identity in the struggle to articulate what it means to be faithful in a world that Christ may not return to for a very long time.

Advent is a time of anticipation, but it is also a time for patience. As we await the arrival of the God who promised to come among us, we may search in vain for signs of his imminent return. The reign of God may seem very far away as we ponder events like the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai or the ongoing economic crisis. In times like these, we are called to wait patiently in the confidence that Christ will come at a time we cannot predict. This patience is a complement to the watchfulness urged by Sunday's Gospel. As we make ourselves ready to greet the Lord, we must also prepare ourselves for what may be a very long wait.

Waiting patiently for the joy that we celebrate at Christmas isn't always easy. For many people, the month of December is a time of great impatience - children watch wrapped gifts pile up under the Christmas tree and count down the days until they can tear them open, while many adults eagerly anticipate the break from work and the opportunity to spend time with family that this holiday season provides. On a spiritual level, we can easily grow impatient with the task of preparing ourselves for the Feast of the Nativity. As we enter into the Season of Advent, we would do well to pray for a greater sense of patience and hope as we anticipate the coming of the Lord. Let us make our own the words of the timeless hymn:

Veni, veni Emmanuel!
Captivum soli Israel!
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel
Nascetur pro te, Israel.

O come, o come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

My prayers are with all readers in this Season of Advent. AMDG.